David Gest | Russian Tea Room | Avenue 

Liza's Hubby Has Charity With Dead Prez

Liza Minnelli and David Gest are getting ready to film their reality TV show for VH-1. However, Gest had better face a little reality about his charity, the tax-exempt American Cinema Awards Foundation. He's still listing Leo Jaffe as its chairman. Jaffe, the movie legend and father of producer Stanley Jaffe, has been dead since 1997. 

Strangely, Gest was already called on this issue once in the last year, when Smokinggun.com called him out for keeping the very sincerely dead Jaffe on as chairman in previous filings. You'd think Gest — best friend of Jacko and he with the waxy, drawn-on parenthetical eyebrows — would have found a living person to take Jaffe's place. Apparently Gest is loyal to a fault. Not even bad publicity could make him replace Jaffe, so the deceased studio head gets to keep his job. Maybe John Edward places the monthly conference call. 

All kidding aside, Gest has other problems with the latest tax filing for American Cinema Awards Foundation, filed in February, 2002. In previous years, he paid himself an average of $190,000 per year as a consultant to his own charity. He claimed that, in years before 2000, the group's annual dinner took in around a million bucks. (I have no idea what this awards show is for or about, but one-time soap opera star Tristan Rogers is also on the executive board, so maybe that's a clue. Maybe it's for unemployed soap stars and game show hosts.) 

Anyway, according to the most recent filing, the annual dinner had gross receipts of only $194,000 and net income of $60,000. The group gave only one grant, of $6,000, to the Community College of Southern Nevada. (This beneficiary is new for Gest, who in previous years listed the Whitney Houston Foundation, Maharishi University, the Actors Fund and City of Hope as recipients of his largesse.) 

Even with these new diminished figures, Gest helped himself to $25,000. 

What happened to the dinner? Did 90% of the previous year's attendees skip it in 2001? And what of Jaffe? How long does his term run, anyway? Maybe Gest is trying to tap in to the popularity of Six Feet Under

By the way, here's a great award given by Gest's group — I had to laugh when I saw it. In 1994 they gave legendary Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Steven Hoefflin something called the Joel McCrea Achievement Award. (McCrea, if you're too young to know, was a movie star of the '50s.) 

I'm surprised this particular award hasn't been upgraded to the Golden Globes. Best Plastic Surgeon? Come on! 

A Great New York Landmark Dies Again 

The Russian Tea Room closed yesterday, but Warner LeRoy killed it a long time ago. I'm mourning because it's like a double death. 

It was bad enough when LeRoy — who bought the place from Faith Stewart Gordon — shut down the Russian Tea Room at the end of December 1995. I was there for lunch on the last Friday it was served and sat in one of the miniature front booths across from the bar with my old pal, Mara Buxbaum. It was a bittersweet afternoon. Ona, the no-nonsense Oprah-like hostess who ran that room with military skill and precision, was hugging everyone who came in. Sydney Pollack, Tony Randall, Sam Cohn — it was the end of an era, and everyone knew it. No one had any expectation of the place being revived. 

LeRoy, who is now dead, promised a spectacular new Russian Tea Room when he brought it back. In the four-year interval, he also promised that David Bouley, the famed downtown chef, would take over the new room. That, like many other pie-in-the-sky LeRoy plans, fell apart. Then, when LeRoy did reopen, the results were simply horrifying. The main dining room on the ground floor was like a shopping mall version of the original. All the beautiful sconces and paintings, the old fashioned red wallpaper and banquets were gone. There was a gigantic Lucite bear filled with live goldfish standing on a platform on the second floor. The décor on the same floor and the one above could only be described as nausea-inducing. 

No matter how much you might have loved Warner LeRoy, he killed the Russian Tea Room — and he did it years ago. 

But oh, the old, real Russian Tea Room was so great at lunchtime. Theater, movie and book agents all chowed down together. Producers — names that appeared in the credits for good productions — dotted the room. Famous people swept in and became instant royalty. There was a sense as you gave your coat in on the left and queued up at the maitre d's stand that many important things might happen while you had your blinis with caviar, omelette or Borscht. 

At the time of the Tea Room's last great run in the 80s, the old Le Cirque was also a happening spot — but for society types, and it was quite small. The Four Seasons had the power lunch in the Grill Room. '21' was for moguls. But the RTR was show business. (You could see the almost comparable group much later, at dinner at Elaine's.) You might not make a billion dollar deal at the RTR, but you'd come away with a great story. 

One of the best came from the legendary press agent, John Springer. John had represented all the best actors, and knew everyone important in the business. He was surprised one afternoon to find director/producer Sydney Pollack lunching with Dustin Hoffman's wife and another more middle-aged woman. Of course, the woman turned out to be Hoffman himself, trying out his Tootsie costume. A similar scene would later be famously filmed for the movie at the Tea Room, putting the eatery on the map forever. Maybe it was an apocryphal story, but the Tootsie anecdote became a legend overnight. 

Back when I interviewed John Springer at the Tea Room circa 1993, we were briefly interrupted. Helen Gurley Brown, the elegant editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and wife of producer David Brown, stopped by our table. John introduced us, and Helen — not realizing that I'd been to the restaurant hundreds of times — still wanted to be gracious. She sort of curtseyed, and said, extending her hand: "Welcome to our world." It felt as though I'd been knighted. 

And so it's gone now, like the Stork Club and El Morocco, the Latin Quarter and Schrafft's, the Automats and the old Hamburger Train on West 54th St., Bickford's and Lamston's and dozens of other New York institutions. You can only imagine what hideous drug store or suburban clothing chain will take over the space next to Carnegie Hall. The beautiful women in great clothes and heavy French perfume, the agents working the tables and making approaches to the power booths that lined the room — all vanished forever. We used to say, 'What's with this food?' and 'Where did they get that painting? That can't be real.' But it was all part of the ambience of that world, and we'll never forget it. 

Avenue Magazine Lives 

Good news — the venerable Avenue Magazine found a buyer late last week, and will continue to chronicle the lives of the rich and the famous on Manhattan's Upper East Side. I'm particularly pleased because our former Murdoch family member, Jill Brooke — who once toiled at the New York Post — has made Avenue a great read every month by combining the diamonds, Champagne and caviar of upper Madison Avenue with more serious fare.

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